Gas in our lives #2: Supporting renewables - No gas, no wind

8 March 2016

In this series, Corin Taylor from United Kingdom Onshore Oil and Gas takes a look at how gas is used in our everyday lives, and what the future might hold.

Developing renewable sources of energy is vital to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but renewables can’t do the job all by themselves. Ironically natural gas is needed to help clean energy sources grow. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that, right now, you can’t develop renewables at scale in Britain without gas.

There are three main ways that gas supports renewables. Firstly, gas provides back-up power. On windy days, we get up to a quarter of our electricity from wind, but naturally on still days we get almost no wind power.

At these times, other sources of electricity have to step in to fill the gap and the biggest source of back-up electricity is gas. Gas-fired power stations can be turned on and off, or up and down, pretty quickly, which means they can respond when the wind dies down. On Tuesday 19 January 2016, it was still and cold across the country. Wind generation averaged 0.3 GW, and gas generation averaged 19 GW. Without gas, we would have had power cuts.

On windy days, it’s a different picture. Two weeks later, on Tuesday 2 February 2016, wind generation averaged over 5 GW and gas generation averaged just under 11 GW. On this day, we had a lot more wind, so some of the gas-fired power stations could be turned off.

If you want to find out what’s happening right now, Gridwatch gives live information on how we are generating our electricity. As we install more wind turbines in Britain, the gap between wind generation on windy days and still days will grow, so back-up sources of electricity will become more important. We do make use of pumped hydro and interconnectors with other countries as a back-up, and in years to come, we will hopefully develop batteries and other technologies capable of storing electricity at scale, but until then we will rely mainly on gas.

Secondly, gas and renewables also play different but complementary roles in the energy system. Renewables generally provide electricity, but 80% of the UK’s heat comes from gas. As we decarbonise electricity, gas will continue to keep us warm.

Thirdly, gas is used as a raw material to help construct renewable energy hardware. Solar panels are a good example. Materials made from gas (and oil) protect and bind together the solar cells using things such as silicon rubber, plastic and polyesters.

So given how important gas is to renewables, it is not surprising that in many places we have seen gas and renewables grow together. In the US, between 2005 and 2014, US renewable electricity generation increased by 52% and gas generation by 48%. And in the 18 states in the US where shale gas is produced, wind generation increased seven-fold between 2005 and 2013 – accounting for 59% of the US total. Texas is the biggest shale gas producing state and also the biggest wind energy producing state in the US.

Together, renewables and gas have helped to reduce the use of coal and cut carbon emissions. Coal use fell 20% in the US over the same period, and CO2 emissions from electricity generation fell by 15%.

As we saw in the heating blog, gas is the most important fuel for keeping warm. But it also has a very important role to play in supporting renewables to generate the electricity we need to power our TVs, fridges and washing machines and charge our phones. We wouldn’t want to stay in the dark until the wind starts blowing. And thanks to gas, we don’t have to.

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